This post originally appeared on the People For blog.
Chief Justice Roberts caps his opinion in McCutcheon v. FEC by waxing eloquently about the need to ensure that elected officials are responsive to the people. This and other cases have described campaign contributions as a way to promote such responsiveness. But considering that this case is about a non-constituent buying influence in elections across the country, the passage's repeated references to constituents seems strangely out of place:
For the past 40 years, our campaign finance jurisprudence has focused on the need to preserve authority for the Government to combat corruption, without at the same time compromising the political responsiveness at the heart of the democratic process, or allowing the Government to favor some participants in that process over others. As Edmund Burke explained in his famous speech to the electors of Bristol, a representative owes constituents the exercise of his "mature judgment," but judgment informed by "the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents." Constituents have the right to support candidates who share their views and concerns. Representatives are not to follow constituent orders, but can be expected to be cognizant of and responsive to those concerns. Such responsiveness is key to the very concept of self-governance through elected officials. (emphasis added, internal citations removed)
Shaun McCutcheon – whose contributions are at issue in this case – told the Court that he wanted to make contributions of $1,776 to each of more than two dozen different congressional candidates (as well as to various party committees) during the 2012 election cycle. It seems unlikely that he could have been a constituent of more than two dozen different members of Congress.
Obviously, people have a First Amendment right to participate in congressional races outside of where they live. But a stirring paragraph about political responsiveness to constituents hardly seems appropriate in a case that is all about political responsiveness to non-constituents.
This post originally appeared on the People For blog.
The Supreme Court's McCutcheon opinion, released this morning, is another 5-4 body blow to our democracy. To justify striking down limits that cap aggregate campaign contributions during a single election cycle, the Roberts Court ignores the way the world really works and makes it far more difficult to justify much-needed protections against those who would purchase our elections and elected officials.
Americans are deeply concerned that control of our elections and our government is being usurped by a tiny sliver of extremely wealthy and powerful individuals (and the corporations they control). That is not the democracy that our Constitution established and protects. The enormous impact of money in politics can destroy a democracy, undermining its foundations by disconnecting elected officials from the people they are supposed to serve and eroding the trust of the people in their system of government.
But the Roberts Court today stressed that campaign contributions can be justified under the First Amendment only if they address "quid pro quo" corruption – i.e. bribery – despite contrary pre-Citizens United holdings with a broader and more realistic vision. A democratic system rotting at its core – a government of, by, and for the wealthy – is not corrupt in their eyes.
If a wealthy person gives millions of dollars to a party (distributed to the party's multiple candidates and PACs across the country), he clearly exercises enormous influence over the laws that get passed. What the voters want becomes far less relevant, because it's the billionaire whose money is vital to getting elected. A government where elected officials allow a few plutocrats to have enormous access and influence over their policies is not an indication of a healthy government of, by, and for the people.
As Justice Breyer write in his McCutcheon dissent:
Today a majority of the Court overrules this holding [Buckley's 1976 upholding of aggregate limits]. It is wrong to do so. Its conclusion rests upon its own, not a record-based, view of the facts. Its legal analysis is faulty: It misconstrues the nature of the competing constitutional interests at stake. It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions. It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate's campaign. Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm'n, 558 U. S. 310 (2010), today's decision eviscerates our Nation's campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.
Americans are organizing around the country to restore our democracy in light of Citizens United and other dangerous court opinions. Today's McCutcheon opinion gives us another reason to rally.
Last year, People For the American Way Foundation released an analysis of McCutcheon within the context of the Supreme Court's past rulings on campaign finance.
For one of the newest entries in the Republican spin war on the D.C. Circuit, check out conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru's column in Bloomberg yesterday. The title alone – Republicans Shouldn't Let Obama Pack the Courts – tells you something important: A column that calls the simple act of nominating people to fill existing judicial vacancies "packing the courts" should be taken with a huge grain of salt.
As just about everyone has pointed out, "court-packing" refers to the FDR scheme to add seats to the Supreme Court in order to achieve desired rulings. Filling existing vacancies is run-of-the-mill constitutional procedure. The closest we've seen to court-packing in a long time isn't President Obama's nominating three qualified nominees to the D.C. Circuit, but the Republican Party's scheme to strip multiple judgeships from that court in order to maintain its current far-right tilt.
Ponnuru also writes that:
Starting in 2003, the Democratic minority embarked on an unprecedented series of filibusters to stop President George W. Bush's appointments to appeals courts. Back then, Republicans said there was a crisis of judicial vacancies needing to be filled. Democrats replied that the courts, especially the D.C. Circuit, were underworked and that the Republicans were trying to pack the courts with like-minded judges. Now the sides are reversed, and so are the talking points
In fact, the situations are hardly similar. Democratic filibusters of a few Bush-43 nominees were all based on their records. Whether it was Janice Rogers Brown, Brett Kavanaugh, or Miguel Estrada, the conversations during committee hearings and floor debates were about their records, not whether President Bush had a right to nominate anyone at all to the court. In contrast, Republicans signaled their intent to block President Obama's three nominees even before knowing who they would be.
Ponnuru writes that the D.C. Circuit has less work than it did when Bush's nominees were confirmed. In fact, Tenth Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich – the conservative, Bush-43-nominated jurist who is the chair of the Judicial Conference's Committee on Judicial Resources – testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee just a few weeks ago that this simply is not true. But even if you used the definition of caseload that Ponnuru's statement is based on (raw case filings without regard to the complexity of the cases), it still serves only to highlight GOP hypocrisy on the issue: As we have pointed out before, President Bush and Senate Republicans worked to fill these same seats in 2003 when the number of case filings was less than it is today.
Ponnuru also mischaracterizes an anonymous letter Senator Grassley claims to have received from a D.C. Circuit judge, suggesting that the letter somehow supports the notion that the current judgeships should not be filled.
First, legislators shouldn't be basing their decisions on edited comments from anonymous sources that are not even entered into the formal record or made available for public inspection and questions from senators. Secondly, it's clear from Grassley's rendition of the letter that it was talking about creating new judgeships, not filling existing vacancies. Here's what Sen. Grassley has said the anonymous judge wrote:
I do not believe the current caseload of the D.C. Circuit or, for that matter, the anticipated caseload in the near future, merits additional judgeships at this time. . . . If any more judges were added now, there wouldn't be enough work to go around. [emphasis added]
Since no one is talking about adding new judgeships to the D.C. Circuit, the quote has nothing to do with the situation before us.
Ponnuru also says that the court is actually balanced between Democratic and Republican appointees. While that is true for active judges, five of the court's six senior judges are Republican appointees. These senior judges sit on the three-judge panels that do most of the court's work, and they maintain a strong influence over the court. So when you draw a three-judge panel, there is a high likelihood that it will have a conservative majority, because Republican nominees outnumber Democratic ones 9-5, a nearly 2-1 ratio. Senate Republicans like those numbers and would like to keep them that way.
But there is a bigger picture: Even if everything that Ponnuru said was accurate, Congress has by law has established the D.C. Circuit as a court with eleven active judgeships. Senate Republicans don't like that, so they are using obstruction to make it de facto an eight-judge court. There are proper, constitutionally mandated ways of changing the law: Get Congress to pass a bill and the president to sign it. Nullifying and rewriting the current law through obstruction is not what the Founders had in mind, and it would make a lousy Schoolhouse Rock bit.